Often referred to as “the green heart of Italy”, Umbria is a predominantly beautiful and – despite the many visitors–largely unspoiled region of rolling hills, woods, streams and valleys. Within its borders it also contains a dozen or so classic hill-towns, each resolutely individual and crammed with artistic and architectural treasures to rival bigger and more famous cities. To the east, pastoral countryside gives way to more rugged scenery, none better than the dramatic twists and turns of the Valnerina and the high mountain landscapes of the Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini.
Umbria was named by the Romans after the mysterious Umbrii, a tribe cited by Pliny as the oldest in Italy, and one that controlled territory reaching into present-day Tuscany and Le Marche. Although there is scant archeological evidence about them, it seems that their influence was mainly confined to the east of the Tiber; the darker and more sombre towns to the west – such as Perugia and Orvieto – were founded by the Etruscans, whose rise forced the Umbrii to retreat into the eastern hills. Roman domination was eventually undermined by the so-called barbarian invasions, in the face of which the Umbrians withdrew into fortified hill-towns, paving the way for a pattern of bloody rivalry between independent city-states that continued through the Middle Ages. Weakened by constant warfare, most towns eventually fell to the papacy, entering a period of economic and cultural stagnation that continued to the very recent past.
Historically, however, Umbria is best known as the birthplace of several saints, St Benedict and St Francis of Assisi being the most famous, and for a religious tradition that earned the region such names as Umbra santa, Umbra mistica and la terra dei santi (“the land of saints”). The landscape itself has contributed much to this mystical reputation, and even on a fleeting trip it’s impossible to miss the strange quality of the Umbrian light, an oddly luminous silver haze that hangs over the hills.
After years as an impoverished backwater, Umbria has capitalized on its charms. Foreign acquisition of rural property is now as rapid as it was in Tuscany thirty years ago, though outsiders have done nothing to curb the region’s renewed sense of identity and youthful enthusiasm, nor to blunt the artistic initiatives that have turned Umbria into one of the most flourishing cultural centres in Italy.
Most visitors head for Perugia, Assisi – the latter with its extraordinary frescoes by Giotto in the Basilica di San Francesco – or Orvieto, whose Duomo is one of the greatest Gothic buildings in the country. For a taste of the region’s more understated qualities, it’s best to concentrate on lesser-known places such as Todi, Gubbio, ranked as the most perfect medieval centre in Italy, and Spoleto, for many people the outstanding Umbrian town. Although there are few unattractive parts of the Umbrian landscape (the factories of Terni and the Tiber valley being the largest blots), some districts are especially enticing: principally the mountainous Valnerina, Piano Grande and Lago Trasimeno, the last of which is the largest lake in the Italian peninsula, with plenty of opportunities for swimming and watersports.Read More
Regional food and wine
Regional food and wine
The cuisine of landlocked, hilly Umbria relies heavily on rustic staples – pastas and roast meats – and in the past tended to be simple and homely. The region is also the only area outside Piemonte where truffles are found in any abundance, and their perfumed shavings, particularly in the east of the region, find their way onto eggs, pasta, fish and meat – but at a price that prohibits overindulgence.
Meat plays a leading role – especially lamb and pork, which is made into hams, sausage, salami and, most famously, porchetta, whole suckling pig stuffed with rosemary or sage, roasted on a spit. Game may also crop up on some menus, most often as pigeon, pheasant or guinea fowl. The range of fish is restricted by the lack of a coast, but trout can be caught from the Nera River and Clitunno springs, while the lakes of Piediluco and Trasimeno yield eel, pike, tench and grey mullet. Vegetable delicacies include tiny lentils from Castelluccio, beans from Trasimeno, and celery and cardoons from around Trevi. Umbrian olive oil, though less hyped than Tuscan oils, is of excellent quality – about 90 percent is extra virgin – particularly that from around Trevi and Spoleto.
As for desserts, Perugia is renowned for its chocolate and pastries. Cheeses tend to be standard issue, although some smaller producers survive in the mountains around Norcia and Gubbio.
Umbria used to be best known outside Italy for fresh, dry white wines. Orvieto, once predominantly a medium-sweet wine, has been revived in a dry style. The wine was beloved of the artists and architects of Orvieto’s Duomo: Luca Signorelli requested a thousand litres per year by contract. In recent years the pre-eminence of Orvieto in the domestic market has been successfully challenged by Grechetto, an inexpensive and almost unfailingly good wine made by countless producers across the region. Umbria’s quest for quality is also increasingly reflected in a growing number of small producers, many of whom have followed the lead of Giorgio Lungarotti, one of the pioneers of Umbrian viticulture (any wine with his name on is reliable), and in some outstanding reds, notably the Torgiano Rosso Riserva DOCG and the Sagrantino DOCG of Montefalco. The region has four wine routes (strade del vino): the Strada del Sagrantino, around Montefalco; the Strada dei Vini del Cantico between Todi, Perugia, Torgiano, Spello and Assisi; the Strada del Vino Colli del Trasimeno; and the Strada dei Vini Etrusco-Romano, in the province of Terni.